Cork a danger but hard not to see them swept away by new blue wave
Jim Gavin’s side favoured to win All-Ireland senior football championship quarter-final at Croke Park
There have been better football championships, plenty of them, in fact. These are oily enough concepts at the best of times but you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone taking to the barricades in defence of the quality of the football summer.
London and Monaghan have told entertaining stories but you won’t need to go beyond the fingers of one hand to count the quality games. Down v Derry in Ulster. Longford v Wexford and Westmeath v Fermanagh in the qualifiers. Kerry v Cork, at a push.
Yet almost despite itself, the championship tumbles out on to the quarter-final stage this weekend with about as solid a final eight as you could hope for.
Everybody’s top six at the start of the summer is present and correct for the weekend the summer properly starts.
All it needs is for the remaining games to live up to somewhere close to their billing and there will be some hurried revision of verdicts on the 2013 championship.
A weekend that will leave bodies in its wake sees Dublin and Cork meet tonight in the first loser-go-home clash of the year between presumed contenders.
If that framing feels a little generous to Conor Counihan’s side, it’s only because there is little doubt Cork possess the playing squad to challenge for the title in a year where there is no outstanding candidate.
That they haven’t put it all together yet – and indeed haven’t for a while – is no guarantee they won’t.
They could yet be the stopped clock whose bell chimes at just the right moment. Against most sides, Cork are still a team whose assets exceed their liabilities.
Even deprived of the services of the luckless Colm O’Neill, they have kept their scoring tallies at a remarkably high level. In 31 championship matches since Counihan took over in 2008, they’ve averaged 19.7 points per game.
Take out the annual trimmings they hand out in Munster and only include Kerry matches, qualifiers and the All-Ireland series, and they still average 18.3 points each time they play.
Even their average tally in defeat – 15.2 points – is well above par. Just for comparison, Dublin’s average score in defeat over the same period is 13.5. Kerry’s is 13.1.
All of which is a roundabout way of pointing out that although Dublin are obvious favourites tonight, Cork, with all their flaws, are still likely to present them with a pretty high bar to jump.
It isn’t as though Dublin don’t have worries of their own. One of the most noteworthy aspects of their Leinster final win over Meath was the extent to which Jim Gavin has come to rely on his younger brigade: list the players who were substituted the further that game went on – Bernard Brogan, Diarmuid Connolly, Ger Brennan, Eoghan O’Gara, Cian O’Sullivan.
All-Ireland winners to a man just two summers ago yet all pulled from the fray as the likes of Jack McCaffrey, Ciarán Kilkenny and Paul Mannion were trusted with closing out the game.
The flipside, of course, is only a manager with a panel as deep as Gavin’s could take those players out of a provincial final and still kick on.
The introduction of Denis Bastick against Meath won them the game – or at least ended Meath’s best chance of taking it from them. He will certainly see game time this evening, possibly even from the beginning.
At any rate, it seems clear neither side will start as named.
While Cork certainly have the personnel to pressure Dublin at midfield in much the same way Meath did, their vulnerability at half-back is what will surely be their undoing.
They will most likely use James Loughrey to track Paul Flynn, which seems a waste of his talents, at best, and an invitation for Flynn to open up prairies of space in the Dublin forward line, at worst.
But potentially Cork’s most fatal weakness is on Loughrey’s inside where Graham Canty’s continued presence just isn’t working anymore.
Being exposed by the dynamic running of Donegal’s all-out attack in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final was one thing; chugging along in the wake of the classy but hardly quick-silver Seán Armstrong against Galway last weekend was another entirely.
For all that he is the spiritual core of the Cork defence, Canty looks ripe for the plucking by a Dublin side whose most obvious attribute is raw pace.
Cork’s first half against Donegal last year showed they still have a serious, tactically-disciplined performance in them.
But the way they folded in the period just before and after half-time betrayed a side equally capable of throwing their hat at a task when it becomes too arduous.
Dublin will run at them all night and when they’re done doing that, Gavin will throw on five subs who will run at them even harder.
Cork may well deal with the first wave but chances are the second will overwhelm them.